I finished the fifth Harry Potter book last night; it was another page-turner and kept my attention! Allow me to also say, while these book review posts are aimed at parents who are considering reading them with their kids, adults could use them as well if they like reading fiction and fantasy in particular to think their way through the book.
Note as well that I did not say that this review was suitable for parents to just turn their kids loose on this series. It is instead a guide for parents to read the book with their kids, either at the same time or just before the kids read it to be able to discuss the themes, plot lines, character development, and lessons.
For a plot synopsis of this book, as always head over to Wikipedia. At 860 pages this book has a lot of plot to cover, but here it is in a “way too short” formula: Harry and his friends complete their fifth year at Hogwarts with two major plot lines running simultaneously as intertwined issues. First, a group of wizards led by Dumbledore organizes to combat Voldemort and his followers following his return, known as the Order of the Phoenix and including most of the “good” characters in the series. (Harry, Ron, and Hermione know of the order and interact with it but are not members because they are underage) Combined with that, the Ministry of Magic denies that Voldemort has returned and appoints Dolores Umbridge as Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, who systematically undermines Dumbledore and his teachers and ultimately unseats him as headmaster of Hogwarts. And naturally, Harry gets to show that he is competent beyond his years by fighting not only Voldemort but many of his senior followers.
“The Order of the Phoenix” is a good book but has been, as have the other books in the series, subject to mixed reviews from the Christian community. Read the PluggedIn review here, while Christianity Today has come out generally in favor of them.
In my opinion, this book has enough redeeming value for teens who understand that fantasy books have no bearing on reality. It has plenty of good for those kids, and several interesting ethical angles that could be helpful to parents. That said, there is enough violence in the book (though none that could not be on prime time TV in today’s world) that younger kids are best to wait awhile.
There is a strong difference between good and evil in this book, and the main characters fight for good. They endure a lot of personal cost for their willingness to fight for good against evil, and that is a redeeming theme.
The book also shows the consequences for actions. Harry makes several rash decisions, and we get to see the results of those decisions. He doesn’t control his temper and gets himself in trouble. He lips off to Umbridge and gets banned from Quidditch. That ban is unjust, but that lesson is a good one in that Harry had a chance to avoid it by keeping his mouth shut.
This book shows Harry growing up and going through the trials of being a 15-year-old boy becoming a man. From the perspective of a grown man it is not hard to see why Harry starts having some flashes of anger, of ego, and of romantic interest that he doesn’t understand. Simply put, Harry’s testosterone levels are increasing and that causes him to make some significant mistakes and decisions that are not the best. Why is that good? Because any young person reading this book can see it from the outside and therefore think about it in their life. Boys can see that they are normal to experience some of this; girls can see that boys lose their mind in puberty too!
Harry’s relationship with Cho Chang takes a turn in this book that can be helpful for young teens and their parents. Harry has affection for Cho, but doesn’t understand her as a girl. Hermione provides some insight into how Cho is thinking, but Harry doesn’t really get it. This is good stuff to talk about the differences between men and women and how they relate!
Harry is also quite confused at times in this book, mostly by his suddenly changed relationship with Dumbledore and lack of having his most trusted friends around. We watch Harry struggle alone with significant and difficult questions when he should have asked Dumbledore or Mr. and Mrs. Weasley, or even his godfather Sirius Black, for help and advice and explanation. That is an important lesson for kids and adults alike, because we all struggle with asking for help when we need it. Harry’s perspective on the events in the book is also sometimes suspect, and as the book wraps up the reader gets a fuller understanding that could have helped Harry see a lot more clearly and make better decisions. What a great discussion for parents and kids to have!
The corollary discussion comes at the end of the book as well, as Dumbledore admits to Harry that he has made some significant mistakes in not telling Harry what he should have. He had good motives for that, but admits it was wrong. I love the opportunity this presents to parents to discuss with their kids that parents are fallible too, and that the only one who will never fail us is Jesus.
This takes even MORE from a significant issue in the book with Harry’s dad, James Potter. Harry has always idolized his dad, but in this book he gets to see his dad in a very unflattering light in a memory he sees of Severus Snape’s. Harry has to come to the realization that his dad wasn’t perfect and was even mean-spirited at times as a teenager. Parents were once kids, too!
There are plenty of plot lines in this book as well about outcasts and not judging a book by its cover. (thank you…thank you…I’ll be here all week) Luna Lovegood is a great instance of that. Snape is another good instance of that, whose exterior is somewhat explained by the abuse he took as a student at Hogwarts. While Harry hates him (and Snape treats him terribly), Dumbledore trusts him. Umbridge hates half-breeds, so she hates Hagrid (who is a great guy). There is racism in the book on the part of Voldemort and his Death Eaters, who hate half-breed and Muggle-born wizards. There is hypocrisy as well which is well-explained, in that Voldemort is a half-breed himself.
Before I start, a quick note on “the bad.” I believe that these can also be redeemed if they are used correctly by parents, and that there is enough meat here to chew to make the bones bearable.
First off, of course there is a TON of magic in the book. It is a bedrock of the world Harry Potter lives in. It’s a fantasy book, so yeah. But the magic in this book does take a bit of a sinister turn. The kids get into the Department of Mysteries at the Ministry of Magic and find some stuff there that is a bit intense.
Divination is also part of the world of Hogwarts. First Professor Trelawny and then Firenze the centaur teach the students divination. The students mostly think that Trelawney is a fraud (and for the most part she is), which is helpful. Firenze thinks that she certainly is, and also admits that centaurs search the stars to tell the future but they are not always right. So a parent could talk to their child about the biblical dangers of divination and its origins to get away from it.
There is some violence in the book, but while the PluggedIn review said it was gruesome I just couldn’t see it. The only death is Sirius Black falling through an arch and disappearing. Voldemort is not a nice guy, and we learn from Bellatrix Lestrange that the Cruciatus curse (which causes intense pain) only works when the caster of the spell takes joy in causing pain to the target.
Harry doesn’t listen to authority much. Dumbledore tells him to study Occlumency to protect himself from Voldemort, but Harry doesn’t listen and is tricked into the climactic battle of the book, costing Sirius his life in the process.
The good far outweighs the bad in this book. It is engaging and there are a lot of plot lines for parents to really talk about with their kids. This is a tale of good and evil, of growing up and learning that you don’t know everything and turning from a kid into an adult. It is a tale of overcoming injustice and challenging presuppositions. Read it with your discerning kids 12 and older.